Long-Term Strategies for the Long-Tail

An article by Michael Moyer in this month’s Scientific American reinforces that crowd-sourcing approaches towards rating sites are inaccurate, and do pose a risk to lawyer’s reputations. We’ve discussed lawyer rating sites on Slaw before, here and here.

Moyer cites Eric K. Clemons of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who points out a couple of inherent biases in rating sites:

  1. people using a service have already made a choice, and are pre-disposed to liking it
  2. people do not tend to rate things they find satisfactory

What this means is that rating sites represent the extremes – those that love their purchase, and those that hate it. Although it would be great to get raving reviews of legal services on rating websites, there’s a much higher likelihood that discontent or even opposing parties will make an impression instead, especially where no controls against anonymous reviews are in place.

Moyer also cites a 2009 study by Vassilis Kostakos, Is the crowd’s wisdom biased? A quantitative asessment of three online communities, which quantitatively assessed 20,000 reviewed movies on Amazon, Imdb, and books on BookCrossings. Despite the large community size of the websites and controls against anonymous voting, significant biases were observed for user voting and rating behavior .

There are several key findings in the study of interest. First, Kostakos presents a confirmation of the long-tail hypothesis, popularized by Chris Anderson’s 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Although obscure items will be of interest to a small group of people who make minor purchases, the crowds who only buy a few times are more interested in mainstream popular products.

The study also found that users who are inconsistent in their ratings contribute to a smaller bias, while more consistent users contribute to a more significant bias. Moyer states,

“There is nothing to say that these people are good at what they do,” Kostakos says. “They just do a lot of it.” What appears to be a wise crowd is just an oligarchy of the enthusiastic.

The existence of super-reviewers has one unassailable advantage, though: they are rarely shills. The deliberate manipulation of review sites by people directly involved with a product—the author of the book, say—is one of the oldest and most difficult problems for online-rating communities to solve.

But what is the relevance for legal marketing?

Repeat users of legal services are not (always as) commonplace, so there are some limits to transferring crowd-sourcing theory to the legal industry.

Perhaps infer that those who utilize rating sites generally will be more likely to rate their legal services online as well. It is becoming increasingly recognized that offline purchasing behaviour is significantly affected by online consumer-generated reviews, as in a 2007 survey by The Kelsey Group:

Purchase Behavior Subsequent to Online Review Consultation
October 12-18, 2007
Source: comScore, Inc./The Kelsey Group
Service Percent of Review Viewers Subsequently Making a Purchase of Stated Service
Restaurant 41%
Hotels 40%
Travel 27%
Automotive 24%
Home 19%
Medical 14%
Legal 8%
Online Review Influence on Purchase Decision
October 12-18, 2007
Source: comScore, Inc./The Kelsey Group
Service Percent of Review Users Identifying Review as Having a Significant Influence on their Purchase*
Restaurant 79%
Hotels 87%
Travel 84%
Automotive 78%
Home 73%
Medical 76%
Legal 79%

What was even more significant about this survey was the premium customers were willing to pay for what they perceived as a superior legal service, a more significant “lift” than any other industry examined:

Amount Consumers Willing to Spend for 5-Star Service
October 12-18, 2007
Source: comScore, Inc./The Kelsey Group
Service (Suggested Average Price) Excellent

(5 Stars)


(4 Stars)

Restaurant Meal ($20) $37.95 $25.44 49%
Restaurant Meal ($50) $59.93 $41.40 45%
Hotel ($100) $137.36 $99.73 38%
Home ($250) $252.15 $209.50 20%
Travel ($350) $366.72 $299.81 22%
Legal ($60) $104.36 $52.51 99%
Medical ($15) $29.67 $23.54 26%

In other words, online perception of a legal service not only affects client acquisition, but also perceived expectation of cost and willingness to pay more. As Anderson says on p. 99,

For a generation of consumers used to doing their buying research via search engine, a company’s brand is not what the company says it is, but what Google says it is. The new tastemakers are us. Word of mouth is now public conversation, carried in blog comments and customer reviews, exhaustively collated and measured. The ants have megaphones.

The “traditional” method of legal marketing, which is often subversive and relies exclusively on professional successes known only to fellow professionals is doomed to fail, especially since consumers are looking for evidence of competency first-hand.

Anderson shares this strategy on p. 217,

The secret to creating a thriving long tail business can be summarized in two imperatives:
1. Make everything available.
2. Help me find it.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Omar.

    BUT “Repeat users of legal services are not commonplace, so …” – spoken like a barrister! When I was in private (solicitor’s) practice, for eight years, I had lots of clients for long stretches or the whole time (clients of the firm, in many cases, but repeat users regardless.) So we would have been exposed to ratings, presumably.

  2. Certainly, I suffer for barrister-bias.
    You’re entirely right that solicitor type work would be very different. But then I also wonder how customers would evaluate the service, aside from cordiality, unless it potentially went to litigation.
    Again, that’s my barrister-bias.

    Still, the principles of making the solicitor service available, and helping a customer find it, still does apply here.

  3. I expect solicitors’ clients would evaluate them based on communications, timeliness, transparency of fees, and the various characteristics that Slaw’s legal practice gurus tell us are more important than ‘expertise’, which is hard for clients to judge: understanding of the clients’ business, commitment to it, strategic sense, and so on.

    Whether the ratings sites allow for much subtlety is another question. If it’s just a rating from 1 to 5, without comments, then it would not be of great use (but could be of great harm to the firm that gets a low but unexplained rating.)

  4. All excellent points. It would seem that rating sites would need to provide some guidelines, or at least some more detailed descriptions, in order for clients to better grasp what a rating should entail.

    The other main recommendations for rating sites in the Kostakos study are:

    1. Some items will receive a disproportionately large number of votes.
    2. Some users will vote disproportionately more times than the bulk of the population.
    3. Harness high-voting users to improve the standard of the website by having them vote for single-vote items. This can increase the accuracy of average rating per item, as single-vote items are most likely to be biased.
    4. Reduce the barrier to vote in order to increase the amount of voting.
    5. Design quality control mechanisms that condemn both overly negative and overly positive reviews.
    6. Expert communities exhibit increased conflict on a microscale and relatively smaller bias on a macroscale, even in the absence of quality control mechanisms.
    7. The use of relative instead of absolute scales transfers better across websites. Hence, use a percentile rating as opposed to a star rating.